Three unidentified flying “objects” that the Pentagon shot down over North America did not have any propulsion systems, were not being manoeuvred and were not alien in origin, the White House said on Monday.
The most recent downing happened on Sunday when an object flying at about 6,000 metres was shot down over Lake Huron, one of North America's five Great Lakes. Two other objects had been shot down over the preceding two days, one over Alaska and one in Canada.
“These objects were not being manoeuvred. They did not appear to have any self-propulsion,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
“So the likely hypothesis is that they were being moved by the prevailing winds.”
President Joe Biden ordered the vessels to be shot down after authorities determined they posed a risk to civilian air traffic. Searches for the wreckage, which landed across remote and frozen areas, are under way.
Until more is known about the craft, they all could be described as unidentified flying objects — UFOs — though officials moved to tamp down speculation about any otherworldly origins.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre drew laughter from reporters when she said: “There is no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns”.
But only a day earlier, a top general declined to rule out any extraterrestrial explanations.
Air Force Gen Glen VanHerck, head of North American Aerospace Defence Command (Norad) and Northern Command, said he would “let the intel community and the counter-intelligence community figure that out”.
“I haven't ruled out anything at this point,” he told reporters on Sunday.
Mr Kirby seemed to dismiss any notion that the as-yet-unidentified flying objects, which the US military has described as “octagonal” or “cylindrical”, are anything but terrestrial in nature.
“I don’t think the American people need to worry about aliens with respect to these craft. Period,” Mr Kirby said.
Unidentified aerial phenomena are a matter of serious Pentagon study and Mr Biden started receiving intelligence briefings on the issue in June 2021, Mr Kirby said.
Additionally, the president on Monday directed an interagency team to study the "broader policy implications" for the detection, analysis and disposition of "unidentified aerial objects" that pose either safety or security risks, Mr Kirby said.
Chinese 'spy balloon'
The shoot-downs came less than a week after a Chinese balloon was destroyed over the coast of South Carolina after drifting across the US for several days. The US calls it a “spy balloon” that was being used to surveil sensitive military sites, but Beijing has claimed it was a weather-monitoring station.
Washington issued a sharp denial on Monday after Beijing accused it of sending several American high-altitude balloons over China.
The US rebuttal comes as tension flares between the two superpowers over the downed balloon.
“It's not uncommon as well for the United States to illegally enter the airspace of other countries,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
“Since last year, the US's high-altitude balloons have undergone more than 10 illegal flights into Chinese airspace without the approval of the relevant Chinese departments.”
The White House said that any claim the US government operates surveillance balloons over China is false.
“It is China that has a high-altitude surveillance balloon programme for intelligence collection that it has used to violate the sovereignty of the US and over 40 countries across five continents,” National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said.
“This is the latest example of China scrambling to do damage control,” she added, noting that China, which claims the balloon that was shot down was a weather-monitoring platform, has failed to offer any “credible explanations” for intruding into other countries' airspace.
As the Chinese balloon drifted across the US for several days, it caused a political furore in the country, with Republicans accusing Mr Biden of being too slow to shoot it down. But the Pentagon said analysts were able to capture significant intelligence about the balloon as it traversed America.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled a planned trip to Beijing for what was supposed to have been a willingness to signal a rapprochement between the world's two largest economies.
Mr Biden acted much more quickly to order the shoot downs of three other objects that were subsequently spotted in US and Canadian airspace.
The Chinese “spy balloon” was shot down on February 4 by a US F-22 fighter. US Navy and Coastguard teams have recovered much of the wreckage of the vessel, which landed in waters about 14 metres deep off the eastern state of South Carolina.
Mr Kirby said the balloon was carrying a payload as long as three buses. Some of that has now been recovered from the Atlantic, though rough seas are hampering efforts.
At the weekend, Chinese state-affiliated media reported that an unidentified flying object had been spotted off the country's east coast and that the military was preparing to shoot it down.
Beijing on Monday declined to comment on that report, AFP reported.